MOTIF(F): Awkward Female Protagonists
Give me a girl who can't handle life and I'll show you a movie
This Thursday, April 11, see Marie Rivière introduce a 35 mm print of Le Rayon Vert, as part of our summer TIFF Cinematheque programme Dangerous Liaisons: The Films of Eric Rohmer.
In Le Rayon Vert, Éric Rohmer’s 1986 comic romp which won him the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, a woman can’t decide where she wants to go on summer vacation. In fact, the very concept of leisure is crippling for the film’s awkward female protagonist, Delphine. Thin, with a fragile glass-like demeanor, the French actress Marie Rivière spends the movie on the verge of tears at all times. The centerpiece involves a nearly 10-minute conversation where she apologizes for her vegetarianism, stuck in the thankless position of being a houseguest pushing away her plate. (“Lettuce is more like a friend,” she says, in mid-breakdown, as her hosts wheedle her.)
Le Rayon Vert’s Delphine is difficult, anxious and hard to please. She wants a summer romance, but when series of swarthy men on vacation proposition her, she flees. She’s a blowsy, throw pillow of a woman, doomed to an oversized robe and an inspirational coffee mug. But Rohmer’s script (nearly all improvised, with the actress playing a fundamental role in the creative process) and keen, curious eye gives her the redemption that Delphine deserves. The film’s last shot, as she observes the last dying green ray of a sunset is one of such existential beauty, it’s almost hard to bear. In another work, Delphine would be a Cathy cartoon-like warning of what happens to sad, single women who can’t be satisfied. Here, Le Rayon Vert gives her the grace and the humanity to finally own a moment.
Mama loves an awkward female protagonist. Maybe because, as an awkward female myself, I’m always searching to find myself in characters that don’t exist. These figures rupture the frame, acting out in ways uncommon to traditional cinema. It’s more than a girl with glasses and paint-splattered overalls, one Sixpence None The Richer-indebted makeover away from Freddie Prinze Jr.’s undying love. The kind of awkward I adore can’t trumped up in Zooey Deschanel bangs and ukulele solos. It’s not Little Miss Sunshine, or Juno or Natalie Portman cradling a tear in a goddamned Dixie cup. And while I love Kristen Stewart to the earth and back, I just don’t see it in the bevvy of triumphant, heroines of any franchise involving a dystopian revolution or sexy, glittering vampires. The character I’m searching for is more akin to how Tina Fey once defined “crazy” in show business - “a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”
Unable to own their flaws like Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck and less twee than Amélie, awkward female protagonists can be nasty, brutish and short. Or confused and standing alone at a party, giving a speech they don’t know how to complete, because the person they long to talk to is far across the room. It’s “I carried a watermelon” before the confidence kicks in. They yearn for things and often don’t deserve to get them. Sometimes, even the movie hates them.
Take Dawn Wiener, who was born (in 1996’s Welcome To The Dollhouse), killed (in 2004’s Palindromes, the film opens with her funeral - she committed suicide) and then brought back to life (in this year’s Wiener-Dog where she is played by Greta Gerwig) by her creator, Todd Solondz. Played by a then-12-year-old Heather Matarazzo, Wiener is a thankless nerd on the brink of her sexuality. By seventh grade, she already understands that life is bullshit. Bullied at school, berated by her teachers and ignored by her family who dote upon her great-at-school brother and adorable younger sister, our heroine’s life sucks everyday. (Wiener is also largely responsible for her sister’s kidnapping, which bleakly and hilariously, only gets her more attention.) When she sees Steve Rodgers, an absurdly hot senior who is forced to join his brother’s terrible garage band in exchange for help with his schoolwork, Dawn’s eyes go wide and her Underoos grow moist. Out come the crop-tops and the need to make Steve her boyfriend. Retorts her former friend Ralphy: “You think you’re hot shit but you’re really just cold diarrhea.”
The bleak ending of Dollhouse sees Dawn en route to a class choir trip to Disney World. (I have been on so many choir trips.) As she sings along with her classmates on the bus, the camera holds on a face rarely captured in close-up. This Wiener is doomed. Yet, 20 years later in Wiener-Dog, Dawn becomes a bleeding heart veterinarian who rescues a dachshund moments before she’s supposed to be euthanized. Her childhood tormentor Brandon invites her to Ohio with the simple enticement: “crystal meth.” She hops in the van, daschund at her side, ready to have an adventure. Dawn might be pathetic, but she grabs life by the ovaries. Just because you’re a thirsty nerd in Sally Jessy Raphael glasses doesn’t mean that you can’t get yours.
Greta Gerwig, who might be the reigning queen of the awkward female protagonist (see: Hannah Takes The Stairs, Greenberg, Mistress America, Damsels In Distress), personified everything I love about them in Noah Baumbach’s 2012 film Frances Ha. Running from part-time job to dinner party to spontaneously devastating weekend sojourn in Paris (“One for Puss in Boots?” she asks the ticket counter when she realizes that her jet lag has forced her to waste an entire day in the City of Lights, my favourite joke), the film chronicles the awful stop-gaps in the 27th year in Frances’ life. It’s a movie defined by sublets and couches in which to crash. (“I have trouble leaving things,” she says.)
Like Rivière, Gerwig makes her physicality elastic, constantly in mid-dance, whether with a wine glass or a cinematic leap across New York’s Chinatown scored by David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” It’s a highly controlled performance that feels completely natural. In an interview on the Criterion DVD, actress/director Sarah Polley commented on the fact that she turns every a reaction shot into a painful, silent monologue.
There are no ends to Frances’ humiliations, but just like Le Rayon Vert, the film is almost jubilant, romantic. The protagonist is crippled by debt and insecurity, not a girl not yet a woman, insufficient down to the funds in her debit account. Her best friend has distanced herself and there are no men in Frances’ life. (That fact that she’s “undateable” becomes a catchphrase, then a credo.) Yet, despite the money troubles and her desperation, Frances remains victorious. She’s searching for something. By the end of the film, she earns a one-bedroom apartment and concedes to an office job. She gets her shit together before she drowns in it.
“Awkward” can be industry speak for unlikeable, but truly toxic bitches in cinema are rarely given the allowance to be human beings. In Jason Reitman’s wholly underrated black comedy Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody, we see what happens to the girl who peaked during high school. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, the ghostwriter of a Gossip Girl-esque series soon to be cancelled. During what might be a psychotic break, she returns back to her hometown and tries to seduce her high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson), despite the fact that he has a new baby and is married to a comelier, dorkier woman in town.
My favourite scene takes place in a sports bar where they’re finally allowed some alone time. Mavis waits for Buddy, perfectly poised, manicured nails tapping on her Sidekick. It’s revealed that she’s texting a long string of gibberish to herself. Alone, she camps out in her hotel room wearing Juicy Couture, eating fast food, a tiny dog/sight gag by her side, the Kardashians on a loop. Her plot to win back the man she loves is endorsed by no one. Worse, her only friend is Patton Oswalt. Their inevitable sex scene where Mavis strips down to her spanx, her makeup smeared, her cleavage now revealed to be those awful chicken cutlet inserts, is tragically deserved.
Awkward can still mean dangerous. Just because you’ve won the genetic lottery doesn’t mean that you’ve learned how to be a human being. The climax of the film is still one of the most brilliant (from a structural screenplay writing perspective, anyways) things in a movie. Mavis, having been humiliated and rejected at a baby naming ceremony in front of her former classmates and parents, winds up in the kitchen looking for Patton. His sister Sandra, who idolizes her, sits her down at the table for a pep talk. “I need to change,” says Mavis. “No you don’t,” assures the sister. “Everyone here is old and fat.” “Yeah,” Mavis a few lines later remarks,” “but most people here seem so happy with so little. It’s like they don’t even seem to care what happens to them.” Says Sandra, “That’s because it doesn’t matter what happens to them. They’re nothing. Might as well die.” Mavis, cheered up by realizing that she doesn’t actually need to learn the lesson most movies necessitate, agrees she will return to the “Mini-apple” (Minneapolis). “Take me with you,” Sandra bravely demands. “You’re good here,” she says. She then drives away in her totalled Mini Cooper, a visual metaphor for her soul.
As anyone who has ever encountered one knows, no one is more awkward than a British person. Auteur Mike Leigh has practically staked a career out of his awkward female protagonists and every single one is a revelation. Often embodied by his stable of brilliant go-to actresses (amongst them, Sally Hawkins, Alison Steadman, Marion Bailey, Karina Fernandez, Katrin Cartlidge and Lesley Manville), the female characters in Happy Go-Lucky, Another Year, Life Is Sweet, Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, Nuts In May and Career Girls are completely singular. If you love movies, you need to see all of these performances immediately. In Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, an aspirational hip-hop dancer (played by first-timer Katie Jarvis) deals with her drunken mom and her mom’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender’s penis makes an appearance) in the British housing projects. The scene of her finally dancing for a club’s panel of judges, in all of its fumbling, unskilled beauty, is one to watch.
A protagonist who still haunts my dreams at night is Anais Pingot, the titular 13-year-old from Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl. (All of Breillat’s movies and their portrait of female sexuality deeply disturb me. Five years ago, I watched 36 Fillete at the TIFF Cinematheque and left halfway through a sex scene to have a panic attack in a handicapped washroom.) This seemingly pastoral movie about two sisters on vacation at a French resort turns dark, disturbing and finally, poignant.
Anais’ older sister is perfect looking, most importantly thin and her sexuality is blossoming. Throughout the film, Anais is constantly punished for her rapacious appetite. (The actress herself was discovered in a McDonalds.) Just take a scene in which her sister’s handsome, Italian college-aged suitor begs to take her virginity as Anais plunges deep into her banana split.
The film received a NC-17 rating for a rape scene where Anais lies one twin bed over, as her sister has her virginity taken from her. Love and sexuality in Fat Girl can only come to the beautiful, but even then, the sentimentality is a lie we tell ourselves to make it all okay. (Just ask the contestants of The Bachelor.) I probably won’t ruin the ending, since it’s one of the most fundamentally shocking things in a film I’ve ever seen. But I will say that despite being constantly present in the frame (all the sex scenes are shot from her perspective, watching and eating), Anais is the one unloved, underlooked, untouched. By the end of the film, she stares down the camera in a freeze-frame, triumphant against her attacker. She’s earned its gaze and its love.
Aside from Bette Davis’ indelible performance in Now, Voyager, there weren’t a lot of awkward female protagonists during the time of classic Hollywood cinema. (Luckily for me, I love a naive ingenue and I ship a salty dame. Chef’s kiss to my girl Barbara Stanwyck!) However, as the social revolt of the 1970s began, the awkward female protagonist found its feet in New Hollywood Cinema, from the titular Annie Hall and Carrie, to Jill Clayburgh’s star-making performance in An Unmarried Woman, to Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in 3 Women, to Claudia Weil’s hidden gem Girlfriends (a favourite of Lena Dunham’s), to Sandra Bernhard’s terrifying turn in The King of Comedy, to Barbra Streisand’s political activist in The Way We Were, and beyond.
These days, these character often find their place in romantic comedies and coming-of-age films, usually directed, produced or written by women. The protagonists in movies close to my heart - Muriel’s Wedding, Ghost World, Obvious Child, Love That Boy, Slums of Beverly Hills, Romy and Michelle’s Highschool Reunion, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bridesmaids, amongst them - show the multiplicity of this role. (FYI: there are no awkward female protagonists in the Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity.) Even notorious kitchen fetishist Nancy Meyers’ partially nails it with Kate Winslet’s side of the equation in The Holiday, a film adored by Claudia O’Doherty’s winning Australian roommate “Birdie” in the Netflix series Love in a memorable scene.
Where is the awkward female protagonist going? TV, as ever, seems to be the domain, where female showrunners and performers can take a character and run with it. (Shout out to the awkward, unlikeable female OGs, from Mary Tyler Moore to Murphy Brown to Elaine Benes to Rosanne to Ally McBeal to Carrie Bradshaw to Liz Lemon!) In the five thus far seasons of Girls, Lena Dunham’s heroine Hannah Horvath has shown all sides of her character, getting herself into even more compromising situations and unflattering jorts. Just like in her breakthrough film Tiny Furniture, Dunham turns an unblinking eye to herself and proudly places her camera on all aspects of her identity. Mindy Kaling (in The Mindy Project), Abbi Jacobson and Illana Glazer (the 4/20-friendly creators of Broad City), Maria Bamford (star of the Netflix show Lady Dynamite) and Rachel Bloom (creator and star of the incredibly astute musical comedy My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) have also done the same thing in ambitious send-ups of mental illness, class, sex, race and even genre.
Jill Soloway’s Transparent has unpacked the awkward female from all angles, using a family fractured by their patriarch's recent gender transition to grasp for revelations about sexuality and coming to terms with who you are. And, on the Lifetime Network of all things, I’ve recently also become addicted to the meta-reality show drama unREAL, which stars Shiri Appleby as a proud feminist at the helm of a Bachelor-esque franchise. Her relatability, the very painfulness of her aura, charms the contestants into doing whatever she wants. A hoodie-clad, craft service-eating, manic depressive, she’s also a master manipulator who ruins more lives than God.
Ideally, we’ll soon see even more realized characters from minorities and LGBT creators. (On the Canadian front, while the independent film Diamond Tongues and the new CBC series Baroness Von Sketch Show have showcased some awkward female leads, we could do more to raise the profile of compelling female leads. Side note: if you are a producer or a Telefilm executive reading this, please give me $1.5 million dollars.) Recent efforts from writers and filmmakers like Issa Rae (creator of the Awkward Black Girl web series), Lena Waithe (incredible, though certainly not lacking poise, in Master of None), Ali Wong (her Netflix special Ali Wong: Baby Cobra had her doing stand-up while seven months pregnant) and Desiree Akhavan (writer/director/star of the Sundance queer rom-com Appropriate Behaviour got her billed “the Persian Lena Dunham”) seem like harbingers of things to come.
This summer, the internet basically exploded as we all found ourselves in the character of “Barb” on the sci-fi Netflix series Stranger Things. A girl in a puffy track jacket and mom glasses, sitting alone on the diving board in front of a swimming pool at night, as her best friend bestows mediocre head to a mediocre jerk upstairs, moments away from being abducted by a monster, is all of us. (Except for the monster part.) Though Barb is probably dead (the tragedy of it all!) and trapped between the living world and the upside down, our undying love proves that the awkward female protagonist endures.